Hidden realities

Hidden realities

Hidden realities

Kunal Basu
Pan Macmillan
2015, pp 318, Rs 599

The City of Joy, Calcutta or Kolkata, has been the subject-matter of several books, paintings and movies. Kunal Basu, the renowned author of The Japanese Wife fame, chooses the city as his setting and theme in his recent novel Kalkatta.

Another version of the name of the city, the term Kalkatta is mainly used by the non-Bengalis living there, and by the North Indians too. Popularly identified as the “Cultural Capital of India”, a vibrant place, rich with cultural ethos, the Kolkata in Basu’s book, however, portrays many hidden and unknown facets of the city.

Basu’s protagonist, Jamshed Alam aka Jami, is the son of Bihari migrants who were forced to leave their native land and live in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. When opportunity knocks their door to get back, they decide to take shelter in Kalkatta, the city of dreams. Starting life afresh in Zakaria Street in the house of a distant relative, Mushtaq Ahmed, the family aspires to become true Kalkatta-wallahs.

The family’s first attempt at doing so is to get Jamshed a birth certificate which would erase the stamp of being a refugee forever. From then onwards starts Jami’s struggle to establish himself in the eyes of his family, as well as carve a niche for himself. However, like for most people, it takes him a long time to understand that wealth, upward mobility and respectability in this city are not necessarily the outcome of decent hard work. Basu traces his protagonist’s attempts at trying to evolve as the perfect city-dweller who is not looked down upon as a poor refugee.

A school drop-out, Jamshed manages to get hired as a sub-agent in a travel firm. Not happy with the underpaid and unsteady job, and desirous of affluence, Jamshed does not mind when he is urged by Monica, a middle-aged rich lady looking for paid sex, to shift to Champaka, a massage parlour by name, but an upper-class brothel in reality. Working as a full-time gigolo, Basu’s hero is continuously on the path of being drawn further away from the dreams of respectability that his parents had hoped for him.

On his journey to a world filled with hopes and despair, Jamshed confronts various people — rogues like Rakib and his gang trying to pull him further down to his doom; his client ‘parties’, the pretentious cultured Bengalis like Monica, her businessman-husband and their circle of upper-class friends; his colleagues in the brothel, the three girls and the transgender, Rani, and many more. Basu’s ability to bring the city alive is seen primarily through his wide range of characterisation, each person as perfectly and authentically portrayed as the other. All these characters portray different shades of the city — the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the happy and the miserable.

Basu’s Kalkatta is as much a character in his book as his protagonist, Jamshed. The author presents a squalid and despicable picture of the city — the other side of the coin in fact — full of misery, exploitation, corruption, and illegal activities. It is not only in Jamshed’s narrative, but in the tales of all the other characters of the book that the negative side of this metropolis is brought to light.

Poverty in many forms, hawala rackets, gambling, drugs, fake documents, kidney rackets, and above all, the ever-present sex workers dominate Basu’s book. However, Basu’s sordid portrayal is quite authentic and easily recognised as ‘behind the scene’ picture of many big cities.

Basu’s Kalkatta is at once a depiction of a depraved and wretched cross-section of society as also a rare portrayal of essential humanity of the dispossessed. Going against the trend, Basu’s rendering of the marginalised of the society is not essentially as corrupt and criminals. His protagonist, Jamshed, no doubt craves to become rich, but that desire mainly stems from his urge to relieve his father from the burden of his poorly-paid tailoring job, his dream of setting his mother free from the stress as a zari worker and support his polio-ridden sister. He shows his golden heart after his life takes an unexpected turn when he meets the young boy, Pablo, a patient of leukaemia, and his single mother, Mandira.

Jamshed ultimately succeeds in transforming himself to a true Kalkatta-wallah, but in the process becomes a stranger to himself. His near-perfect life as a gigolo, providing him the satisfaction of financial stability, if not anything else, threatens to be destroyed, ultimately driving him away from his family and the ‘city of dreams’.